I had a my commissioning service last night at Dunfermline Abbey, a truly wonderful celebration filled with love and support and encouragement. I found it incredibly moving — especially at a time when I feel like all I am doing is saying goodbye (and, as someone I love dearly is lying dying back in the States, some goodbyes are really, really hard to say from such a distance) — to look at at so many friends past and present who remind me that I am not alone in what I am doing. Thank you to Dunfermline Abbey for being such gracious hosts, and to the Presbyteries of Dunfermline and Dundee for pledging to support me during this next five years, and to so many people from Old Saint Paul’s who travelled across the water to be with me last night.
I was asked to give a few words at the start of the service about responding to God’s call. Here’s what I said.
As I stand here amongst friends and colleagues, I can’t help but question the wisdom of asking a mission partner who is just days away from uprooting her life and moving to a foreign land rife with political tension to say a few words about ‘responding to God’s call’. Because words that come to mind for me just now are ‘terrifying’, ‘costly’, ‘sad’ and ‘really, really stressful’ … and in my lower moments, ‘utter madness’. Perhaps not the words you all expect or want to hear.
And maybe a part of me was already sensing the weight of God’s call when I chose the readings we are about to hear: a sung setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah from the Holy Week service of Tenebrae and a passage from the farewell discourses of John’s gospel, the words of Jesus to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Those of you familiar with Tenebrae will know that as the service progresses, lights and candles are gradually extinguished until the church is in darkness.
The past week has felt a bit like that, each goodbye we’ve said — and we’ve said a lot, each piece of paperwork completed — and we’ve completed a lot, each point ticked off the to do list — and we’ve ticked off a lot, has felt like the extinguishing of a candle; the familiar, the comfortable, the easy are receding, and I find myself looking into the deepening darkness of the future, the unknown, the uncomfortable, the difficult.
Those who know me well, though, know that I’m not afraid of the dark. And this feeling seems to me about right for this next stage of my ministry, and the next stage of my life with Justin.
Because I first felt this particular call of God in the dark, after all: in the darkness of a refugee family’s home in Ramallah, where some of the darkest stories of grief and oppression I have ever heard were illuminated only by an oil lamp in the corner. It came in the fading light of that afternoon, in an empty playground where heavy rain masked my tears. It came in the quiet, shadowless darkness of my room as I tossed and turned in bed.
That is my experience of God’s call.
It was the darkness of approaching Advent, darkness similar to that which surrounds us now. Darkness of a world of extremism and violence, darkness of disbelief at the horror human beings are capable of inflicting upon other human beings, darkness so deep and solid we wonder whether hope and peace and love and all the promises of the gospel will be able to pierce it.
Tenebrae, of course, ends with the re-emergence of a single candle. Holy Week ends with the celebrations of Easter as a new day — and new world — dawns. The Advent we are about to enter guides us towards the joy of Christ’s birth.
Responding to God’s call means, for me, remembering that, as the psalmist says: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day. Responding to God’s call means, for me, acknowledging the presence of the light, and walking towards that single vulnerable flame. Responding to God’s call means, for me, at times having the courage to be that single flame: to embrace hope in the face of hopelessness. To seek peace where it seems a folly. To pray that I might embody love in the presence of fear and anger and hate.
The Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Riots’ ends:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across
the whole world
where does it hurt?
God has called me — as God has called each of us — to participate in the healing of a hurting word. I have no grand plan, no great vision. In the words of the Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe: ‘We are not optimists; we do not present a lovely vision of the world which everyone is expected to fall in love with. We simply have, wherever we are, some small local task to do, on the side of justice, for the poor’.
For me, the location of ‘local’ is about to change, but the task remains the same as it has always been, the same as it is for each of us: to love one another as Christ has loved us, to commit our lives to that love. I ask your prayers for me as I respond to God’s call in my life. And please be assured, dear friends, that you will be in my prayers as you respond to God’s call in yours.